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The Subversion of Child Support
September 15, 2004
by K. C. Wilson

Child support has always been contentious and always will be. Determining whether it is fair or reasonable starts with its purpose. What should laws that set child support address and seek to accomplish?

Child support could be to simply cover the real costs of a child and ensure reasonable needs are met. It could be to insulate children from any economic impact of divorce, or sustain the standard of living of the custodial household at its pre-divorce level. Each implies different provisions, and different measures for whether they work.

Few have trouble with who should meet whatever purpose, or how: both parents, in proportion to their means. Yet 13 states use a child support formula, called Percentage of Obligor, that ignores the custodial parent's income, so even that assumption is not safe.

The objective is often taken for granted when it should be the founding statement and measure of any law. At issue is society's responsibility to protect its members, versus creating financial incentive for divorce. Divorce per se should carry neither financial punishment nor reward for either party.

Put like that, you'd think public policy would only be to ensure normal child costs are met. If either parent gives more, so much the better, but imposing more would create an unnatural reward for divorce and custody. We would create divorce for profit and drive those fathers further away who left their family out of shame from being unable to support them in the first place.

Income Shares is the child support formula used by 30 states. It's name comes from its stated objective: to ensure that any child has the same "share" of each parent's income available for its care as if its parents were married. This proportionately accounts for two incomes, so should be fair, and sounds noble. Children should be protected from any effect of divorce at all cost; the effect on any parent is irrelevant. Except that anything that affects either parent will eventually affect the children.

Income is not simply made available but provided, whether needed at any one time or not, and through only one parent. The purpose is not to ensure the equal presence of both parents so as to ensure that availability of incomes, only the incomes, irrespective of real need. This can be insufficient in some cases and too much in others. Further, since one-third of children born in the US are born outside of marriage it assumes a lower level of pre-existing costs for those parents than probably existed. There was no pre-divorce single household, so Income Shares can result in unsustainable child support.

Most of the public is unaware of the change in policy in the 1980s. Child support is no longer child support, but support of a standard of living, ostensibly for the child, but coincidentally enjoyed by the custodial parent. This is of great benefit to custodial parents, but of questionable value to children. It effectively combines child support with alimony and injects it into all cases instead of keeping them distinct with alimony only for select ones. It also allows today's child support formulas to ignore the real costs of children and the reality of two households, in favor of less contestable incomes.

Here's how it works in practice.

Government figures show that a household with a gross income of $13,500 a year ($1,125 a month) will spend, on average, $700 a month on two children. If both parents make the same and the father has no time with the children, you'd expect his child support to be half that: $350 a month.

But in a typical state such as Virginia, a father of two making $6.50 an hour and whose ex-wife makes the same (both gross $1,125 a month) pays $540 a month in child support. After that and taxes, including credits for children only the mother can claim, he takes home $388 a month (half the poverty level), and she nets $1,193 after child costs. She gets more than her gross earnings, after taxes, support, and the costs of the children.

In California, if he is making $75,000 a year, and she, $35,000, he pays $1,250 a month for two children that cost $1,150 a month.(1) Before child costs, he winds up with a net income of $34,000 to her $44,000. She gets 30% above her gross income before child costs. If he has only 20% of the children's time, he will have similar total real child costs, but though he makes twice as much, nets a quarter less on which to meet those costs.

The difference in net incomes comes from, not only the transfer payments, but the many tax benefits for which no formula accounts that are only accorded custodial parents even though both are equally single parents.

How did this happen and how desirable is it? Perhaps more important is whether it's what was intended.

In the 1980s, women's groups lobbied for a standard-of-living criteria for whether divorces turn out fairly. A divorce is fair if neither party suffers either a large increase or decrease in standard of living.

It was not explained why, between any two unmarried people, a similar standard of living should be expected, but a major issue of the day was female financial independence: the ability of women to earn as much as men. It was also never established why correcting this should fall on the shoulders of individual men instead of society as a whole. There were unsubstantiated claims that divorce was profitable for men, instead of having different abilities to earn, but although there are certainly cases where alimony is justified, making divorce profitable for women, especially those already with their own income, is a dubious solution.

Child support became the vehicle for post-divorce equalization only because most children are assigned solely to the mother. It was imagined that whatever the mother suffered, the children suffered as much, a direct relationship that can also be questioned.

The perceived solution for women (and hence, children) suffering economically from divorce in some cases was a new objective for child support in all cases that included custodial parents, predicated on their marital standard of living. Child support became a vehicle for income redistribution, and child support agencies and advocates are overt about it. A father who objects is a deadbeat or oppressor.

As a policy, it carries several anomalies.

  1. It assumes that divorce leaves one single parent instead of two, each with nearly as much in direct child care costs. That is, it assumes every case is a sole custody case producing only one parent and household. This leaves the non-custodial parent supporting one and a half households, and the custodial parent, half of one. It can therefore impose a one-parent outcome in many cases as it can deprive the non-custodial parent of the resources to equally sustain a household to which his children can equally spend even a day.
  2. The economic assumption produces a psychological impact. The assumption of no other active parent is a signal that the non- custodial parent's contact with the children is considered irrelevant. Assuming his absence economical encourages it in fact. Fathers, many already suffering emotionally from a divorce that was not their idea, are discouraged from being fathers by not being treated as an equal parent.
  3. With child support set in excess of the real costs of children, a custodial parent often need make no contribution.
  4. As a policy for financial independence of women, it creates financial dependence.
  5. As a policy for equalizing women economically, it counts on women to always get sole custody. Whether that is a desirable public policy is open to debate.
  6. While in general it may be true that men have more income than women, in cases where it is not true but the same policy is applied, it creates the inequities in the opposite direction it sought to remove. A recent study found that 35% of custodial parents earn more, not less, than their non-custodial counterpart.

Income redistribution (rob the rich and give to the poor) can be a valid objective when judiciously applied at the macro-economic level. Perfect competition only exists as a model, while in reality inequities develop such as the rich getting richer, not because of increased productivity but the nature of money to attract more money. Also, a social group can find themselves economically disadvantaged for historical reasons. So one purpose of taxes and public spending is to ensure the benefits of an economy are more evenly spread.

No economist has ever advanced income redistribution at the micro level -- applied between any two people -- exactly because it can only result in the inequities described above. It is an example of what economists call the fallacy of composition: because something can work at one scale is no reason to apply it at another. At the micro level, the composition of "the community" becomes highly volatile (those "any two people" could be, well, any two people), so the desired effect is less reliably achieved.

Even a right solution, applied at the wrong place, will only create greater problems. Child support as income redistribution can only transfer poverty, not solve it, and increase both divorces and fatherless children.

Child support would do better to assume no greater ambition than cover normal child costs. It would serve children better, which it is what it's supposed to do, not adult needs nor other social or economic agendas.


(1) Standard child costs are taken from the Cost Shares formula devised by Guideline Economics of Atlanta, GA., which adapts them from Department of Agriculture figures. The only adaptation is conversion of some values from per capita to marginal, due to their different use. Average income of the parents is used to index into these tables instead of combined income because, after divorce, there is no combined household.

Copyright © 2004 K.C.Wilson. K.C. Wilson is the author of Male Nurturing, The Multiple Scandals of Child Support, and other e-books on family and men's issues.

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